In the last year or so, many of us discovered the challenges (and pleasures?) of remote working. Whatever your experience has been, a quiet living room all for yourself, or a kitchen table with screaming kids around, we can’t deny that moving all our activities online hasn’t been easy.

When it comes to workshops the challenge doubles: post-its, sketches, discussions, teamwork and human interactions. All these elements may seem incredibly complex if not impossible to move online. Fortunately, you only need a couple of good tools and some planning to be able to carry out a successful online workshop. Here are three tips from our personal experience.

1. Find the right combination of online tools

Collaboration is key when it comes to workshops, and choosing the right tools to allow teams to work as effectively as in-person, is the very first step to take when planning an online activity. Participants need a way to easily share thoughts and content, and most of the time they will need to collaborate on the same output in real-time.

In-person, this would be as simple as using few post-its on a wall, sketching ideas on a piece of paper, or sitting together in front of a presentation to discuss possible solutions. Remotely, it means finding a set of tools that can support teamwork throughout the entire workshop, favouring those solutions that have real-time collaboration at the core of their features, so that participants can work together without stepping on each other toes.

We discovered a winning combination for our remote sessions: Breakout Rooms and Virtual Whiteboards.

A computer screen showing a Zoom meeting and where to access breakout rooms from

Zoom has probably become the most used tool for online meetings in this period (even to connect with family and friends!), and thanks to its Breakout Rooms feature it turned out to be the best choice for our online workshops. This feature allows you to easily divide participants into groups and assign them to dedicated “virtual rooms”. Once they join their Breakout Room, they will be able to discuss and collaborate within their group until you call them back to the main session. The host (and co-hosts), can join any Breakout Room at any time to check on each group and provide support when needed.

A Miro whiteboard showing virtual post it notes

The second most powerful tool to include in your set is Virtual Whiteboards. If Breakout Rooms allow you to divide participants into groups, a virtual whiteboard will provide them with a collaborative canvas where they can work together on different activities, from putting down ideas on simple post-its to creating complex outputs (customer journeys, wireframes, etc.).

Our choice fell on Miro, which is incredibly flexible and easy to use. It provides ready-made templates for a wide range of activities, post-its and basic design elements (wireframes, icons, photos, etc.). But there are multiple solutions on the market that you can experiment with. What’s important is that participants can work simultaneously on the same virtual space, creating content, moving it around, and commenting on it, with every person seeing what other team members are doing (no screen-sharing required).

2. Plan for Technical Issues

When combining many different tools (Slack, gDrive, Zoom, and Miro just to name a few), and several different people all in one remote session, there’s a good chance that you will experience some hiccups. So when possible try to play in advance. Although not all issues can be anticipated, planning ahead will help minimize them.

As obvious as it may seem, you should always test all tools ahead of time, and make sure that your connection is good and stable. The same goes for your participants. Make sure they get instructions in advance about any app or software they need to download, and how to sign-up/register. And, since laziness is a universal trait of human nature, I suggest you send another reminder a few hours before the workshop inviting again everyone to access and test any tool required. This will save you a lot of time during the workshop and ensure everything proceeds smoothly. As a last resort, it is also good to have a backup option in case something doesn’t work right. For example, if the video call tool you’re using is unstable or some participants are not able to join, you might want to quickly switch to another tool or consider recording the entire session for those who missed it due to connection problems.

Zoom meeting tool bar showing the record button
Zoom allows you to record meetings and save them locally or to the Cloud.

3. Consider Extra Timing

An activity that normally takes 20 minutes in-person, will most probably take longer remotely. Why? Well, for instance, imagine how easy it is to go to a meeting in-person: you just need to walk into the room, greet everyone, sit at the table and you are ready to start. Remotely, you will probably need some extra time to connect your video, your headphones, share your screen, etc. Multiply that for the number of participants and you are already behind schedule.

When carrying out activities remotely you need to be mindful of the “lost time” that goes into transitions, even if it’s just a few extra minutes.

So, when structuring your workshop, try to consider some extra time, especially when including activities and interactions with participants. For example, I always add 5 minutes to any group activity in my agenda, knowing that they will be used to assign participants into breakout rooms, wait for them to join the private sessions, and allow them to adjust: open the tools required for the activity and share their screen if necessary. I also make sure to schedule my session 10/15 minutes shorter than expected, since I know from experience we will end up using every extra minute anyway, either for technical reasons or simply slower human interactions.

This little trick will allow you to follow a more relaxed pace during the workshop, without having to rush through the content or the activities, giving participants time to process the information and perform better during teamwork.

The Take-Away

There are a lot of limitations that you might face when delivering a workshop online, but with some simple planning and a few adjustments, most of them can be overcome.

Choosing the right tools and test them in advance will already allow you to get off a good start. After that, it is all about making the most of your session without rushing through the activities, and involving participants as much as possible to build a human connection.